It’s a humid June evening in Detroit, making the cucumber-infused cocktails served at a private dinner party at La Palapa del Parian all the more enticing.
Guests have arrived at the southwest Detroit restaurant at 1633 Lawndale from all over metro Detroit. Some just got off work and are still wearing their uniforms. Others are dressed like they’re headed to the club. The general manager, Eddie Vargas, has designed a creative six-course seafood menu from fiery ceviche, oysters Rockefeller, and crab and shrimp cakes atop a cheffy swoosh of cilantro aioli. As the night wears on and the guests have downed several rounds of other refreshing drinks, one spirited group begins to belt out Mexican ballads to applause and laughter. Mirroring the scene, is a massive painting by “Southwest” Freddy Diaz depicting an equally jovial bar scene based off the music video “Escucha Las Golondrinas” by the king of ranchera, Vicente Fernández.
Several guests comment that they would expect this sort of pop-up downtown or in the suburbs, not in the barrio. But that’s just the kind of vibe that owners Nancy Diaz-Lopez and her husband Ramon Luis “Wicho” Diaz were going for when they opened La Palapa in early 2020, after spending more than a decade building the wildly popular El Parian taco truck empire. But a fire in March 2021 destroyed much of the interior, and forced the husband and wife partners to think bigger. Earlier this summer, the duo unveiled a dramatic renovation of the space.
“I wanted it to be our vision, not what other people’s vision of what a Mexican restaurant is like,” says Diaz-Lopez.
What they came up with is space that draws inspiration from the many plazas that dot the small towns in their Mexican home state of Jalisco. They replaced the walls and custom-designed them with rustic-looking wood paneling, built out a more expansive bar area made of brick and granite, and added a secluded seating area where they can host elegant dinner parties, such as the mariscos event in June. For seating, much of the bar space features equipale barrel chairs imported from Mexico. On another wall hangs a soulful portrait of Frida Kahlo, also painted by Freddy Diaz.
As for the food, the family’s signature tacos are available with suadero, birria, lengua, al pastor-style fresh from the outdoor trompo, and other meats, and are usually served with a side of stewed potatoes and green onions. In addition to offering many of the traditional platters of burritos, flautas, and tortas typical of most Mexican restaurant menus in Detroit, La Palapa also serves dishes that are not as frequently seen on local menus like pork ribs smothered in salsa verde, albondigas, and a heaping family-style serving of carnitas. To drink, Vargas — a veteran in the city’s food and drink scene who previously co-owned Peso in the Hubbard-Richard neighborhood — has created a robust menu of mostly tequila-based drinks including several spins on the classic margarita.
Prior to opening in 2020, just before restaurants in Michigan were ordered to switch to carryout-only in the early months of the pandemic, the space had served mostly as a commissary kitchen for their fleet of food trucks — El Parian, Wicho’s Burgers, and El Imperio Mariscos — as well as the informal outdoor taco stand. But the couple, who launched their first taco truck on the parking lot of a car wash at Vernor and Dix back in 2009, wanted to do more.
After opening La Palapa, the couple also took over management of Taqueria Los Altos on West Vernor Highway and ownership of Los Arcos Restaurant Cantina in Allen Park. All three of their restaurant locations regularly host tequila and mezcal tastings, Taco Tuesday specials, and ticketed dining events. They hired Vargas to manage the restaurants and to flex his creative juices behind the bar and in the kitchen.
On Sunday, July 31, the Diazes took home two trophies from the Taco Showdown at Eastern Market, winning the best taco accolade for the carne asada tacos they feature at Los Arcos and the best margarita award going to La Palapa. [Editor’s note: The author was a judge at the event.]
As for the food trucks, Diaz-Lopez says that when the lease to their first taco truck location expired and replaced by Tacos del Barrio (run by Christian Muñoz), she and her husband had to relocate and struggled at first to get the word out about the change. The new Parian truck location is at 8163 West Vernor, while two others remain at their longtime spots at 4802 Vernor and 1120 Springwells near I-75.
Diaz-Lopez says she and her husband have no plans to slow down the pace. They’re currently working on taking over another suburban restaurant and continuing to experiment with more high-end dining experiences at La Palapa.
“I’ve always said, I want to be able to do what downtown does,” says Diaz-Lopez.